Study shows Philip Morris pursued tobacco regulation to enhance its image

By Corinna Kaarlela

A new study by UCSF School of Nursing researchers shows that Philip Morris sought to enhance its image by supporting Food and Drug Administration regulation of tobacco.

Philip Morris was among major U.S. tobacco companies that previously sued the FDA when it attempted to regulate nicotine as a drug and cigarettes as nicotine delivery devices, but beginning in 2000, the company began aggressively pursuing FDA regulation.

“With image-shaping in mind, PM devoted enormous resources to achieving regulation—but on its own terms,” says senior study author Ruth Malone, RN, PhD. “While health advocates frame tobacco use as a public health policy issue, PM’s regulatory efforts focused on framing tobacco use as an individual choice by informed adults to take a risk, which allowed the company to portray itself as a reasonable and responsible manufacturer of a risky product.”

The plan was to divide public health groups and to set Philip Morris apart from other companies in an effort to achieve favorable regulation from a Republican-dominated Congress, according to Malone, who is an associate professor in the UCSF School of Nursing.

The study is published in the June 2005 issue of the international journal Tobacco Control.  First author is Patricia McDaniel, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at UCSF.

Malone and McDaniel based their study on previously secret internal tobacco industry documents. Most of these papers have become available through litigation and now are available at the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library at UCSF.

In their analysis, the researchers show that the change in position was part of a broad effort to redefine the company as socially responsible. The company worked closely with federal legislators, conducted polls contrasting two extremes to make it appear that the public supported their position, and engaged in an extensive public relations campaign to win the public’s support, they found.

Philip Morris’s own market research indicated that 63 percent of the public felt FDA regulation of cigarettes would lead people to believe that cigarettes can be safe, according to Malone. “This suggests that caution is warranted in pursuing any FDA bill that is palatable to the world’s largest tobacco company,” she said. “There are likely to be unintended consequences that will benefit ‘big tobacco’ and hurt public health.”

A bill supported by Philip Morris granting FDA authority over tobacco products that was rejected by the House of Representatives in 2004 was reintroduced in March 2005 in both houses of Congress.

The research was funded by the National Cancer Institute and the American Legacy Foundation.  Titled “Understanding Philip Morris’s Pursuit of U.S. Government Regulation of Tobacco,” the full study is available online at